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Retirement Protests In France Turn Violent

Metallurgists held flares as they marched in the southern port city of Marseille.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat
AFP/Getty Images
Metallurgists held flares as they marched in the southern port city of Marseille.

Waves of protesters, some wearing masks, clashed with police and set fires across France on Tuesday as anger intensified against government plans to raise the age for retirement benefits.

Hundreds of flights were canceled, long lines formed at gas stations and train service in many regions was cut in half as demonstrations unfolded in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and several other cities.

Police used tear gas to disperse one protest in a suburb of Paris. Later, tens of thousands of people marched toward the gilt-domed Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. Officers holding protective plastic shields surrounded the building.


Striking public sector workers were joined by students who have stayed out of school to lend support, ahead of what was supposed to be a Wednesday vote on the retirement legislation, which is now likely to be delayed.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to crack down on "troublemakers" and guarantee public order, raising the possibility of more confrontations after a week of disruptive but largely nonviolent demonstrations.

The chaos has become Sarkozy's biggest challenge since assuming the presidency in 2007. Despite the pressure from the street, he has held firm on his plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, with full pension at 67, not 65, to help prevent the pension system from going bankrupt.

Sarkozy says such a move is necessary because of because of longer life expectancy, and that it is in line with similar changes in other European nations. The bill has already passed the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, and was set for a final Senate vote on Wednesday. But amid intense debate, the vote isn't likely to happen before Thursday and could be pushed back to Friday, according to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

Demonstrators say the retirement reform is unfair because the working class is being asked to bear the brunt of the burden when there is money to be found elsewhere.


Meanwhile, the streets of Marseille were filling up with garbage, and dozens of oil tankers were stuck at sea waiting for ports to reopen. Sarkozy said Tuesday that blockages at oil refineries that have sparked gas shortages "cannot exist in a democracy."

"There are people who want to work -- the immense majority -- and they cannot be deprived of gasoline," he said at a news conference in the northern city of Deauville.

Police fired tear gas to break up a demonstration of high school students in Lyon. Dozens of cars in the city were set on fire Tuesday.
Philippe Desmazes
AFP/Getty Images
Police fired tear gas to break up a demonstration of high school students in Lyon. Dozens of cars in the city were set on fire Tuesday.

Nearly 4,000 filling stations had gone dry as of Tuesday amid the strikes and panic buying, but Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed that "the situation will be back to normal" with fuel supplies in "four or five days."

The government has begun tapping the country's strategic oil reserves to resupply gas stations.

Francois Bayrou, head of the centrist Modum party, told NPR that the situation is "more dangerous than we've seen in several years." With "the truckers, plus the blocked oil refineries, plus the empty gas stations, plus the high school students, [it is] creating a risky situation that may radicalize," he said.

The protests intensified this weekend as more than a million people marched in the streets across France. One uniting factor seems to be a common dislike of the French president.

"We're here to get rid of Sarkozy right now. We're not even going to wait for elections," a young protester in Paris, Jeanne Baudry, told NPR.

Across the country, 379 high schools were blocked or disrupted Tuesday, according to the Education Ministry. At a high school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, closed because of earlier violence, a few hundred youths threw stones from a bridge at nearly as many police. Authorities responded with tear gas and barricaded the area.

Young people also pelted riot police with projectiles and torched garbage cans at the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris.

The violence brought back memories of student protests in 2006 that forced the government to back down on a labor law that made it easier for employers to hire and fire young people.

Young members of Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement, tried to dissuade students from blocking the entrance to a high school in Paris' 8th arrondissement this week. Pierre Henri Dumond, one of the leaders of the Sarkozy youth movement, talked to several students in an effort to dispel a widely held notion in France: If older people work longer that will mean fewer jobs for young people. Dumond said he's had some success.

"You know, it's very important for us just to come, to explain the reform," he told NPR. "I think they are misinformed."

The Paris airport authority warned on its website and in signs at the airports: "Strike on Oct. 19. Serious difficulties expected in access to airports and air traffic." France's DGAC civil aviation authority said up to half of flights Tuesday out of Paris' Orly airport would be scrapped, and 30 percent of flights out of other French airports, including the country's largest, Charles de Gaulle, would be canceled.

Most cancellations affected short- and medium-haul domestic and inter-European flights. The walkout by air traffic controllers was expected to last one day, with flights expected to return to normal on Wednesday.

Far from the protest movement, Alain David, 65, swept up in his butcher shop. Despite recent polls that show a large majority of the French support the strikers, David told NPR most of them know things have to change.

"I’m very angry against the unions who are manipulating people," he said. "France has a huge deficit and if we don’t reform our retirement system, we’re going straight into a wall."

Frank Browning and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reported from Paris for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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